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Diagnosis and Prognosis

Cancer may be detected when symptoms, such as a lump or growth, are recognized by a patient or doctor. After a cancer is detected, it still must be carefully diagnosed. A diagnosis identifies the specific type of cancer.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosing cancer involves tests that provide details about the presence of abnormal cells in the body. More information about these cells must be gathered in order to identify them as malignant (cancerous) or non-malignant (benign or not cancerous), and if they are malignant, to determine the degree of cancerous cells present.

There are many types of tests specifically designed to evaluate cancer:

  • Observation of abnormal cells under a microscope (pathology and cytology)
  • Diagnostic imaging such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT), positron emission test (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Blood tests
  • Tumor marker tests that detect substances in blood, urine, or other tissues that occur in higher than normal levels with certain cancers (laboratory)
  • Special laboratory evaluation of DNA (genetic information)

How does diagnosis determine treatment?

Information from the diagnostic tests is used to help determine the type and stage of a cancer. This information is then used by your doctors to help determine the recommended course of treatment.

How is prognosis determined?

The probable course and/or outcome of the cancer is called the prognosis. Identifying factors that indicate a better or worse prognosis may help you and your doctor plan your treatment. Some factors that may determine prognosis include:

  • Age
  • Level of physical fitness
  • Size of the cancer
  • Stage of the cancer
  • Aggressiveness of the cancer (cancer cells that are growing and dividing rapidly are considered more aggressive)
  • Genetic make-up of the cancer

Your doctor will evaluate all possible factors to determine your prognosis. While prognosis is certainly relevant it is also important to remember that every person has a unique cancer experience that cannot ever be fully predicted. Some patients have found the classic cancer essay by Stephen Jay Gould helpful in putting prognosis in perspective. We hope you find some comfort in it, too.

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